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Rappel Anchor Failure, Failure to Follow Route, Inadequate Protection, Washington, Mix Up Peak


Washington, Mix Up Peak

On August 15, 1991, I was climbing with Lindsay Berly (26) on the East Face of Mix Up Peak in the North Cascades. As we descended, it grew dark. It was almost completely dark at 2030 when we reached what we believed to be the final rappel anchor. We only had one 50 meter rope and we weren’t sure whether it reached the bottom. Instead of rapping off into unknown vertical and overhanging terrain, we decided to traverse on the lower angle part of the face and look for a better spot to rappel. We found a horn attached to a block that appeared to be solid and close enough to the notch to get us down. Further testing of the horn wasn’t safe because it wasn’t possible to set up a back-up anchor in the surrounding rock. Lindsay clipped into the anchor and I rappelled down. The anchor held while I was on the lower angle rock, but when I stepped onto the overhang, my full weight jerked onto the anchor and it failed. The entire block pulled out. Lindsay was flung forward and fell 80 to 100 feet, severely breaking her left wrist, her right elbow, and her pelvis. She bruised one lung and punctured the other. He also had a concussion and whiplash. She cracked her helmet. Had she not been wearing it, she surely would have died. I fell 40 feet through space, landing on the opposite side of the ridge that divides Gunsight Notch. Our opposing weights stopped each other’s falls. My backpack and helmet protected me, but my ice ax was pushed up beneath my helmet, fracturing my skull and giving me a concussion. I also tore a ligament in my left thumb. I anchored the rope and made my way to her in the dark. Fortunately, her head lamp still functioned. (She hadn’t been wearing it.) I anchored her, administered what first aid I could, got her partially into her sleeping bag, said good bye and set off for help. In my confused state I got lost and fell again, ten feet to a rock ledge, and found my way back to her. I left again pointed in the right direction. I slipped into the moat getting onto the Cache Glacier. After extricating myself, I fell down the chute to the glacier where I managed to self-arrest. I found some ropes frozen into the glacier which helped me cross it, and eventually made it to the trail. At 0100 I reached the parking lot. There were two people there. I asked them for help. They said no. I drove 25 miles to the nearest phone and reached the rangers. The sun rose at 0615, and with it the ranger helicopter found Lindsay. A Navy helicopter rescued her shortly thereafter. Her body temperature was below 90 degrees and she was going into shock. By 0830 she was at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bellingham, WA. Through intense physical therapy Lindsay has miraculously recovered almost completely. She hasn’t yet decided whether or not she’ll ever climb again. I did my first lead since the accident last week. In retrospect I see that if we had bivouacked on the face and approached the problem of questionable anchors in the light of day with a full stomach, we may have been able to find a way to prevent the accident. My advice is: stop when you get tired, eat, and reevaluate if possible. Remember that fourth class rock can mean anything, especially if it’s loose and unprotectable. Wear a helmet, and no matter how many horns, blocks, flakes, nuts, bolts, etc., you’ve safely roped off, always find a way to check your anchor before you risk your life. (Source: Andy Gzesh—21)

Additional Analysis

Gauging one's physical ability and backing up anchors are important. Fatigue and a failure to test the anchor resulted in this fall. In this case, it may have been necessary for Lindsay to clip into the same block anchor, since there was no protection at the horn. If both climbers had reason to doubt the strength of the horn, Lindsay might not have clipped into the anchor while Andrew was rappelling. Then, regardless of anchor failure, she may have been able to help Andrew after the fall. (Source: Dean Engle)